John Wilson Ruckman
The following is an original essay “in progress” and written by P.S. Ruckman, Jr. The author welcomes all comments; especially those that might be helpful for purposes of documenting facts or events described herein, or which shed light on Ruckman family ancestry pre-1858. Send e-mail to PSRuckman@aol.com. Last Update: April 2011
John Wilson Ruckman was a native of central Illinois who left the family farm to become a General in the United States Army. He commanded forts from California to Texas to Virginia and Massachusetts and spent additional time in Cuba, the Philippines, China and Japan. He married the daughter of Civil War hero Col. John Hamilton and corresponded with General Tasker Bliss . He was a close friend of Arthur L. Wagner (President of the Army War College) and sported recommendation letters from the likes of Austin M. Knight (President of the Naval War College) and Major General James Franklin Bell. Ruckman regularly sat on stages with foreign diplomats and Calvin Coolidge and rubbed shoulders with John J. Pershing, Leonard Wood, Walter Reed and Sergeant York. The President of the American Bar Association, W. B. Dubois, Rep. James M. Curley and Charles W. Eliot (the President of Harvard) were among his public critics. On the other hand, the Texas State legislature praised him to no end and two presidents (Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding) defended his decision making in controversial public statements.
Ruckman was a great believer in standing armies and military preparedness. He was also a sharp critic of conventional approaches in his particular field of expertise (artillery and coastal defense). A "realist" in matters related to international politics, he rejected the dominant isolationist perspective of his day as outdated and unnecessarily limiting to the interests of the United States. Ruckman was also a leading advocate (and one of the very few at the time) of coordination of both policy and effort with respect to the various branches of the military. His concerns with respect to military discipline were manifest in his tireless efforts as a proponent of Prohibition and public crusader against various other forms of "vice" around military camps. It is safe to say that, whatever his merits as a soldier and scholar, Ruckman became most famous for the manner in which he carried out the sentences of the first court marital (of three) which followed the Houston Riot of 1917. Although Ruckman's decision making was in accordance with military law, defended publicly by President Wilson and approved by no less than five Judge Advocate Generals, it did result in a major policy change regarding the clemency process for members of the military.
The nation’s leading newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, followed his career closely. The following essay attempts to summarize Ruckman's like in terms of these sources, personal letters and official documents.
John Wilson Ruckman was born on October 10, 1858, in the small town of Sidney, Illinois, just to the southeast of the cities of Champaign and Urbana, in Champaign County. According entries in the 1920 Federal Census, his father, Thomas R. Ruckman, was born somewhere in the State of Pennsylvania, in November of 1831. A 1904 death certificate suggests, however, that Thomas Ruckman was born in Circleville, Ohio, a town that was established as the County Seat of Pickaway County in 1810. Note: The author is currently researching the Ruckman family in both Pickaway County, Ohio, and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
There is actually much more certainty as to the background of John Wilson’s mother, Mary O’Brien Ruckman. Mary was born in Limerick County, Ireland, to Timothy O’Brien and Mary Tucker O’Brien, in November of 1832. She immigrated to the United States in 1852, at the age of twenty. An Illinois newspaper would later report that, upon her arrival, Mary joined at least two sisters – Mrs. Patrick Troy and Mrs. John Moore (of Springfield and Evanston, Illinois, respectively).
According to a list of patrons from Champaign County in 1878, the twenty five year old Thomas and his wife moved to Sidney from somewhere in Pickaway County, Ohio, in the year 1856. One historical source notes immigration levels in that part of the State of Illinois boomed with the completion of the Toledo, Wabash and Western Railroad in 1855.
Two years after their arrival in Sidney, Thomas and Mary had their second child and first son, John Wilson Ruckman. In all likelihood, they named the future United States Army general in honor of two new residents of the Ruckman household - John William Ruckman (1835 to 1920) and Willson Ruckman (1844-1928). The 1860 federal census indicates John William (age 25) and Wilson (age 15) both moved from the State of Ohio to Sidney to live with Thomas and Mary and their two children (Mary Jane and John Wilson). However, it is not altogether clear to the author whether or not John William was a brother of Thomas (and Wilson therefore a nephew) or a cousin.
It is clear, however, that both John William and Wilson served the Union Army “with distinction” in the War Between the States. They entered the conflict as privates in Company A of the 35th Illinois Volunteer Infantry (originally known as G.A. Smith’s Independent Regiment) and served continuously from 1861 to 1864. In that period, the Illinois 35th saw action in Pea Ridge (Bentonville, AR), Stones River (Murfreesboro, TN), Chickamauga (TN) and Kennesaw Mountain (GA). The 35th was also one of the lead units in the assault on Missionary Ridge (Chattanooga, TN) and a participant in General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. Amazingly, the regiment marched over three thousand miles (exclusive of railroad and steamboat) and Behrens (1988) notes that it had an overall death rate of twenty-six percent, “very high even by bloody Civil War standards.”
John William was mustered out of his unit in September of 1864, in Springfield, Illinois, but Wilson continued to serve as a recruit in Company A of the Illinois 7th Cavalry from February 11 to December 4, 1865. After General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the 7th Cavalry spent time in the State of Mississippi and Decatur, Alabama. It then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, before being mustered out at Camp Butler, Illinois. In April of 1874, he purchased 4,000 acres of land in Illinois for $80,000.
Eventually, Thomas and Mary O’Brien Ruckman gave birth to all six of their children (four boys and two girls) in Sidney, Illinois:
Thomas Ruckman purchased 4,383 acres of land for $65,700 in February of 1871. He described himself in the 1878 patrons listing as a “farmer and stock raiser.” By 1893, he owned one hundred and sixty acres of land just to the northeast of Philo. When he died just eleven years later (in 1904), the “prominent citizen” of Champaign County had amassed an impressive estate of seven hundred and forty three acres (in Sidney, Philo and Urbana) and assets amounting to a total of more than ninety-six thousand dollars. A 1917 newspaper article described him as a "successful farmer and stock raiser."
Little else is know of Thomas R. Ruckman’s family, although the personal diaries of one of his grandchildren (Colonel John Hamilton Ruckman) would later suggest that the Ruckman family had immigrated to the United States from Germany via Wales. Today (2004), Sidney, Illinois, has a population of just over one thousand people and thirty-four percent of its residents trace their ancestry to Germany. The aforementioned diaries also refer to Thomas Ruckman’s brothers who served in the War Between the States (Wilson and William) and two sisters (Ellen Ruckman Ford and a sister whose married name was Gill). One of the brothers (Wilson) may have lost his hearing at the Battle of Shiloh.
As indicated in the chart above, John Wilson Ruckman and his sister, Mary Jane Ruckman, were the only children of Thomas and Mary O’Brien Ruckman that married and had both children and grandchildren. Today (2004), the descendants of John Wilson are known to live in Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Descendants of Mary Jane Ruckman Wegeng are known to live in Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, California, Alaska, New York, North and South Carolina, the State of Washington and Washington DC.
Thomas and Mary O’Brien Ruckman, their youngest daughter Elizabeth Ellen (a.k.a. “Lida”), their youngest son William, and his wife (Alice Cash Meenach Ruckman), are all buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Champaign, Illinois, just to the East of Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois. Thomas and Mary’s second son, George Thomas, is also buried in Champaign, in Saint Mary’s Cemetery, just South of Assembly Hall.
As of November of 2004, the Sidney home of Thomas and Mary Ruckman and their six children still stood firm and tall in the fertile fields of central Illinois. The Ruckman House, a two-story, white, brick home sits just to the Northeast of Philo, Illinois, and between Philo and Sidney. It would appear that Thomas and Mary lived in the home from 1856 to the year 1890, when Thomas retired from farming and moved a few miles to the northeast (to 710 Vine Street in Champaign).
John Wilson (known to his family members as “Jack”) received his early education in the county schools and prepared himself without a tutor and “almost entirely without assistance” for his college entrance exam. He was quite close to home though when he entered the University of Illinois, in Champaign, on November 7, 1877. The University was created by a land grant (The Morrill Act), signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and established in 1868
Across three semesters, the eighteen-year-old farmer’s son followed a course of study in “Literature and Science” and maintained an average of 93, including 100’s in both Calculus and Astronomy. In addition to three semesters of English and French (with a semester low of 87 in French), he earned a 90 in Analytical Geometry and 95 in Trigonometry.
But there would be no graduation celebration for the Ruckman family in Champaign. On September 1, 1878, John Wilson was appointed from the 14th Congressional District of Illinois for acceptance to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Congressman Joseph Gurney Cannon (R-Illinois) nominated Ruckman from a pool of twenty aspirants. The Academy was first conceived by President George Washington, but was opposed by Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who argued the Constitution made no provision for the creation of such an institution. When Jefferson became President, however, he signed legislation establishing the Academy in March of 1802.
In his first year at West Point, the nineteen year old Ruckman ranked 26th among the ninety-four members of his class. His course rankings were as follows: Discipline (19th), Mathematics (24th), French (27th), and English Studies (43rd). He also received only 26 demerits.
The Annual Report of the Board of Visitors which was made to the Secretary of War that year noted the Academy featured small class sections (of no more than 12 students) and weekly publications of student “standings.” While offering high praise for the content and rigorous nature of instruction, the Report noted the “virtue of courtesy” was being “grossly dishonored” in the treatment of newly admitted members of the Academy. The Superintendent was reported to have addressed the “hazing” issue by “a wise discretion in the administration of discipline.” Consequently, there were no major hazing incidents at the Academy in the 1880’s.
1879 was also an interesting year for West Point as the opening address of the reunion of graduates featured, for the very first time since the Civil War, a Southern graduate – Francis Smith, the Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. The address ended with an emotional roll call to which the twelve remaining members of the class of 1833 answered “present.”
The Washington Post, New York Times and other major newspapers of the nation would feature the name of John Wilson Ruckman hundreds of times over the next four decades, but the young cadet’s first major appearance in the press was less than impressive. In his second year at West Point, the Post reported Ruckman and Henry E. Waterman (of Minnesota) were suspended without pay after piling up 143 and 158 demerits respectively. Both were denied examinations and were thus excluded from the year’s class rankings – S.O. No. 35, A.G.O., February 13, 1880. 1880 also happened to be the year that Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, a former slave from of South Carolina, was suspended from West Point. Whittaker was only the third African American to enter the Academy and, for some time, was the roommate of Henry O. Flipper, the Academy's first black graduate. In April, Whittaker was found tied up, beaten, cut, bleeding and barely unconscious in his room. He later charged that three of his classmates had attacked him, but a court martial concluded that the incident was a staged attempt to attract attention to himself and to avoid exams (Whittaker had struggled academically).
Archives technicians at the United States Military Academy have confirmed that staff records suggest “Jack Ruckman” had a problem with “inattentiveness to regulations.” More specifically, a “majority” of Ruckman’s demerits were for “minor housekeeping delinquencies” – such as not placing chairs against tables and having articles on a rack that were not “neatly arranged.” But Ruckman also received demerits for dress violations (wearing a “dusty forage cap” and having “frayed paints in Math class”) and for “laughing at artillery drill” and in various other inappropriate places. Thus, Ruckman was suspended from West Point from February 13, 1880, to July 1, 1880, and reinstated in September of 1880 with the second year class. According to technicians, there was “no stigma attached to his being temporarily suspended” prior to graduation.
The Annual Report to the Secretary of War for 1880, praised the 28,000 volume library at West Point, but expressed concern with the overcrowding of cadets in quarters and the lack of adequate bathing quarters. As a result, several cadets had drowned in the nearby river. Cadets were also said to be “sadly deficient” with respect to “elocution.” Less than one and ten were said to speak “distinctly.” Finally, the Report also expressed “surprise and regret” that members of the Academy were “permitted the use of tobacco.”
Ruckman’s second year performance seemed to indicate that he had learned his lesson. He moved to 9th place in his overall class rankings (out of the sixty-eight students remaining). His individual course rankings were as follows: Mathematics (7th), Discipline (14th), French (25th) and Drawing (47th). He received 47 demerits.
Critics of West Point had suggested that instructors from other institutions and from other walks of life be considered, but the Annual Report to the Secretary of War for 1881 saw no “utility” in the suggestion. It was also noted that the “necessarily rigid discipline” of cadets had been restored.
In his third year (1882), Ruckman continued to show signs of radical improvement. He ranked 10th (out of fifty-four students) in his class and ranked in the top ten in two individual courses: Philosophy (5th) and Chemistry (10th). His remaining individual course rankings were as follows: Physics (19th), Tactics (20th), Discipline (21st) and Drawing (46th). Ruckman’s demerit total also fell to 44.
West Point cadets were, at last, denied permission to bath in the river off Gee’s Point and the Visiting Board of 1882 recommended instruction in swimming. Cadets in that year were also especially encouraged to “formulate” their work on blackboards “without book or aid.”
Ruckman graduated from West Point as Second Lieutenant of the 5th Artillery on June 13, 1883. He was ranked 11th in his graduating class of fifty-two students and his individual course rankings were as follows: Ordinance and Gunnery (7th), Discipline (12th), Engineering (13th), Law (23rd) and Spanish (27th). He also received the lowest number of demerits in his four years at West Point (37).
Henry Waterman, who was suspended from West Point with “Jack” Ruckman back in 1880, also fared well after the incident. Waterman ranked 23rd in 1879, 2nd in 1881, 7th in 1882, and 3rd in 1888. But, Waterman also piled up 409 demerits along the way – topping Ruckman’s overall total by more than one hundred!
The Annual Report of the Visiting Board for 1883 praised the “most excellent” state of discipline at the Academy and the “fine military bearing” and “cheerful faces” of its cadets. Ruckman may very well have contributed to the Board’s conclusion that an impressive “precision” was the hallmark of target practice with large guns and mortars.
A formal dinner following the 1883 reunion of West Point graduates featured a response to a traditional toast by 1850 graduate Robert Ranson, who had served as a General in the Confederate Army and commanded a division of the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. Ironically, Ulysses S. Grant was in attendance and had responded to the previous toast.
The following September, Ruckman was assigned to the garrison at Fort Hamilton, New York, where he would remain, off and on, from 1883 till May of 1890, when he enrolled in the U.S. Artillery School. Captain Robert E. Lee served as an engineer at the Fort for five years and both Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Abner Doubleday (the inventor of baseball) had served as commanders there. In 1887, Fort Hamilton would receive a new Commander, Colonel John Hamilton.
On June 16, 1887, at twenty-nine years of age, John Wilson Ruckman married May Hamilton, daughter of the Colonel John Hamilton (1823-1900) and Charlotte Sophia Filley Hamilton (1828-1905). The ceremony took place at Fort Hamilton and the marriage would last thirty-four years, until Ruckman’s death in 1921. It also produced two children (John Hamilton and Marjorie Campbell) who would become quite prominent in their own right.
Colonel Hamilton, like Ruckman, had also entered West Point at the age of 19 years and 10 months - albeit many years earlier (1844-1847). Hamilton, who was born at sea as his parents approached the shores of America (from Scotland via Ireland), avoided the drama of suspension and routinely placed himself in the “top ten” in individual course rankings. Hamilton was also generally ranked second in his class overall. Below the name of John Hamilton, in the annual rankings of West Point cadets, one could find the likes of Patton, Long, Burnside, Mason, Burns, Street and Hill.
After graduating from West Point, Hamilton’s marvelous handwriting skills were much appreciated by public officials in the State of California. The State legislature there commissioned him at $500 to engross the State Constitution on parchment, both in Spanish and English - Hamilton had previously declined a position as Professor of Spanish at West Point. An observer once noted that Hamilton had no “pull” in the military. But he made up for it by distinguishing himself in the War Between the States, at Fort Pulaski (GA), Secessionville (SC) and Olustee (FL). Hamilton’s remarkable service in that effort extended from November of 1861 to February of 1864.
Hamilton’s daughter, May, was born at the Presidio of San Francisco, California. When she married Captain Ruckman of the Artillery Corp, she probably had no idea that, one day, a street at the Presidio would be named after her own husband. John Wilson’s tremendous admiration for his deceased father in law was quite clear.
When his first and only son was born, in June of 1888, John Wilson gave him the name John Hamilton Ruckman. The boy graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California. He also distinguished himself in World War I, in the Saizerais Sector (St. Mihiel Offensive) and Puvenelle Sector (Meuse-Argonne Offensive) and the Army of Occupation. After the War, John Hamilton served as the Editor of Technology’s War Record. He also served as Chief Engineer for the Fercelve Corporation as a participant in the Manhattan Project.
A little over three and a half years later, in February of 1892, John Wilson gave the middle name “Campbell” to his first and only daughter, Marjorie. It was also the first name of Colonel Hamilton’s son, Campbell Thorpe Hamilton.
Marjorie Campbell Ruckman (whose Harris and Ewing portrait appeared in the Washington Post in June of 1915) was a student at Columbia University and the University of Virginia. She became an active member of American Pen Women and Daughters of the American Revolution. She was also a commentator on WRC Radio (469) in the Washington D.C. area.
The status of John Wilson Ruckman in the military world was reflected somewhat by personal correspondence conducted with Tasker Bliss in December of 1889. Bliss (1853–1930) graduated from West Point, but was called back in 1876 to teach French and artillery tactics. He was then chosen as the army officer to teach military science at the new Naval War College at Newport (1885-88). After President William McKinley recommended that he be made a brigadier-general, Bliss served as founding President of the new Army War College. Following promotion to major general, he was chosen as a delegate to the Peace Conference and was a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles. Near the end of his life, Bliss served as a member of the editorial board of Foreign Affairs, to which he contributed several articles.
In a letter dated December 9, 1889, Ruckman informed Bliss that he had spent “a large part of two years” investigating “the effect of wind on the flight of a projectile.” Ruckman noted that he had finally put his “entirely new” theory and discussion “on paper” and that his retired father in law, Colonel John Hamilton, had “reviewed it carefully and critically” and concluded that it was “the correct way of dealing with the problem.”
Ruckman informed Bliss that Captain James M. Ingalls at Fort Monroe had also reviewed the data. Ingalls would later become famous for his use of mathematical models to compute ballistics. Today, most bullet companies utilize his tables (or functional equivalents) in test firings of production bullets for purposes of computing ballistic coefficients. Ruckman believed that, with the use of his own calculations, the wind’s effect upon a projectile could be both “predicted and eliminated.”
Bliss responded to Ruckman’s letter with an encouragement to publish the research on the “wind problem.” On December 16, Ruckman wrote back:
I fully mean to publish it as soon as I can possibly find time to prepare it for publication. This however so far as I am able to judge would not help the service much. Nine-tenths of the artillery officers would not read it and probably would not take the trouble to understand it ... There is still a strong feeling in favor of the same old guesswork which has heretofore characterized our artillery practice.
Ballistics: The Wind Problem in Gunnery was, in fact, published in the July 1890 School of Mines Quarterly (pp. 289-316), a publication of Columbia College, New York.
Ruckman’s analysis of the wind problem in gunnery started from the premise that “nothing need be left to the judgment of the gunners and cannoneers.” The wind’s velocity and direction could be “automatically transmitted and recorded” and tables could be used to show what “allowances” should be made in aiming. The key to ascertaining the necessary “positive facts” for such a process lay in a combination of theory and data collection through experimentation. In Ruckman’s opinion, previous writers had the tendency to provide explanations without facts, or facts without explanations. The work of the former could not be accurately assessed and the work of the later could not lead one to useful generalizations.
Having made the charge, Ruckman signaled his own general leanings by noting, “so long as the observed deviations do not agree with the theoretical ones, we can come to but one conclusion – that the theory is not the correct one.” This disposition was highlighted nowhere better than at page 298, where The Wind Problem features a table of wind velocities in conjunction with the square of wind velocity, deviations by laws of constant forces and deviations by variable forces. Notably, the sixth and seventh columns feature “observed deviations” and the ratio of deviations by variable forces to “observed deviations.” In sum, Ruckman called the “wind problem” a “live problem” whose solution was “vital.”
The second lieutenant reviewed and discussed some of the important theories of his day, then attempted to provide what he called “an original analytical investigation” of the topic. The discussion focused specifically on MacKinlay’s Textbook of Gunnery, Blunt’s Rifle and Carbine Firing and Weisbach’s Mechanics. Along the way, Ruckman noted some of the theories espoused in these works were disproved by “all experience, both with small arms and heavy guns.” In some instances, there were “enormous” contrasts and “great discrepancy” between “theoretical” and “observed” deviations and the theories which led to such discrepancies had to be “abandoned.” As an aside, Ruckman also reviewed what was known as “comet theory” and deemed it “extremely improbable.” In sum, the discussion “distinctly proved”
First. That wind-pressure is wholly insignificant to account for deviations which are the well-established result of long experience. Second. That such insignificant deviations as wind-pressure does produce, follow an entirely different law from that generally accepted as a rule of practice.
Part two of the Wind Problem attempted to approach the topic “from an entirely different viewpoint.” Ruckman agreed that “moving air, in some manner, affects or acts upon the moving projectile.” But he contended that wind cannot produce “side pressure” on such an object. He explained the notion in terms of the manner in which raindrops falling upon a runner, the wind blowing across a ship and notions concerning the aberration of light in the field of astronomy.
With this perspective, Ruckman concluded the lateral deviation of a projectile under the action of a side wind is not the result of wind pressure. Deviation was, instead, a function of the remaining velocity of the projectile, the time of flight, and the weight of the projectile. In moderate winds, deviation varies directly with the wind’s velocity. But, in high winds, deviations are greater for winds that retard, as opposed those which accelerate. Each position was supported by data and comparisons were made with existing reference tables on the topic.
Consistent with his theme, Ruckman emphasized the need for experimentation since, “whatever may be the promise of a theory, a satisfactory confirmation of its conclusions can only be reached by trial.” The “beneficial and economic” results that would follow the settling of such questions could not be overestimated.
In January of 1891, the Board of Ordnance and Fortification at Governor’s Island, New York Harbor made a recommendation with respect to a device that Ruckman and another individual were working on. With respect to the Ruckman-Crosby “range finder,” the Board noted:
Generally, it may be said that the invention is as yet unperfected and requires development at noted. A machine which furnishes the track of a moving target as this instrument does, and which automatically records it on a harbor chart without obstructing the view of this track by any of its mechanism, merits study.
This instrument, which is now the property of the United States, should be under the charge of the commanding officer of the Artillery School, and its inventors invited and encouraged to further develop it on lines suggested or to be suggested by them or others after the approval of such suggestions by the Board of Ordnance and Fortification, and at the expense of the Government.
Four months later, the Washington Post reported First Lieutenant Ruckman and only three others of his rank were invited to Fort Monroe, Virginia, to visit the navy yard where the Government maintained one of its largest ordnance shops. Ruckman stayed as a “guest” at The Ebbitt House, a favorite hangout of Presidents Grant, Johnson, Cleveland, Roosevelt and Harding. Mark Twain once claimed he had sold someone else’s dog to Brigadier General Nelson Appleton Miles (“the hero of the land”) in the lobby of The Ebbitt for a mere three dollars!
The group of over thirty officers who visited Fort Monroe with Ruckman in May of 1891 was reported to have witnessed the “novel process” by which large caliber guns were “jacketed.” The group was reported to have also “inspected” the “various projectiles and other implements of warfare,” including shops where the “finest steel rifles in the world” were made.
But Lieutenant Ruckman would actually be in and out of the Fortress Monroe (located in the City of Hampton) over the next several years. The sixty-three acre installation (also known as the “Freedom Fortress” and “the Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay”) was under construction from 1819 to 1834 and remains the largest stone fort ever built in America. Edgar Allan Poe was stationed there for four months as young soldier and the former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a prisoner there in the aftermath of the War Between the States. Today (2004), Fort Monroe is the nation’s third oldest military installation.
Ruckman entered the Artillery School at Fortress Monroe as a student officer and served as First Lieutenant of the 1st Artillery from February of 1891 to September of 1892. He also graduated that year and was assigned to serve as the Fort’s Police and Acting Ordnance Officer from 1892 to 1899. A newspaper reported that, while he was there, he also saved a drowning man from Chesapeake Bay.
During his service at Fort Monroe, Ruckman and four other officers of the Artillery School founded the Journal of the United States Artillery. Ruckman was later described as the “main” force behind the beginning of the Journal and he served as its sole Editor for four years (July 1892 to January 1896). According to one observer, his “guidance” and “first-rate quality” work were obvious as the Journal “rose to high rank among the service papers of the world.” The Journal was renamed the Coast Artillery Journal in 1922 and the Antiaircraft Journal in 1948.
In 1892, Ruckman wrote “Artillery Difficulties in the Next War” (Journal of United States Artillery) and “The Effect of Wind Upon the Motion of a Projectile” (Journal of United States Artillery). In 1894, he penned “Coast Artillery Fire Instruction” (Journal of United States Artillery).
In June of 1895, the Newark Daily Advocate reported Lieutenant Ruckman had been detailed by the War Department to inspect a local regiment and report. Ruckman met first with Governor McKinley. The Advocate observed the “young” officer of “recognized ability” would “probably be accompanied by his wife.” Afterward, the soldiers were reported to have been “sorry” that the inspection process was “of such short duration” and they praised the value of the discipline they had obtained. The privates also agreed that this discipline had been “enhanced” by the “suggestions” of Ruckman.
In 1896, Ruckman wrote “Investigation of the Comparative Values of Concentrated and Parallel Methods of Mortar Fire” (Journal of United States Artillery). He also filed a report against Battery A. First Light artillery of Cleveland, Ohio. Ruckman charged “inefficiency and insubordination and conduct unbecoming officers and soldiers” against a Captain McConnell and his men. The Newark Daily Advocate reported Ruckman recommended that the entire battery be “abolished.” There was also some concern that an investigation would also focus on a fire which burned all of the battery’s uniforms and “ugly charge of association with the demimonde of Newark” (prostitutes and other women of questionable reputation).
Ruckman was transferred to the Seventh Artillery in March of 1898 and made Captain of the Second Artillery in March of 1899. Ruckman also served briefly as commander of Fort Slocum (April-June 1899) before being assigned to Havana, Cuba, with the Army of Occupation (July 1899 to November 1902). On November 14, 1900, Ruckman was Captain of the 2nd Artillery and ordered to the office of the Chief Quartermaster, Division of Cuba, Havana. There, he was to investigate, report upon and fix the responsibility for the shortage of thirty bales of hay and fifty bags of oats from the U.S. transport Sedgwick.
Several observers of Ruckman's life note that his service in Cuba paralleled a “yellow fever epidemic.” In the summer of 1900 and part of 1901, the fever erupted in Havana and Dr. Walter Reed (head of the American medical corps in Cuba) concluded the mosquito was to blame.
On October 14, 1901, Captain Ruckman was assigned to Fort Totten, New York, for duty at the United States Torpedo School – later named the School of Submarine Defense. From November of 1901 to March 1904, he taught courses in the Department of Chemistry and Explosives. A War Department report described his course in the following manner:
This course should embrace thorough theoretical and practical instruction, and combine them in such a manner as to lend mutual support to each other … It is in contemplation to make this branch of the course as extensive and thorough as practicable. with available and obtainable resources and facilities. It will embrace practical considerations connected it with the manufacture, transportation, and storage of primer, fuses, powder, and explosive, and their application to military purposes. Special emphasis will be laid upon consideration relative to the safety of various kinds of explosive, and special attention devoted to the subject. Physical tests, as far as possible, will be applied to various explosives to determine their condition.
Courses were eventually divided into “theoretical” (1.elementary chemical principles, 2. principles of qualitative and quantitative analysis 3. Theory, classification, manufacture, properties, tests and employment of explosives) and “practical” (1. chemical manipulation, preparation and use of apparatus 2. analyses and service tests of explosives 3. employment of fuses and use of high explosives 4. tests of relative strength of explosives). The course work was then followed by an “examination” of “a practical nature.”
Ruckman wrote a piece entitled: “Are Disappearing Gun Carriages essential to Our Coast Defense?” (Journal of the Military Service Institution, 1902). One observer would later note that it was “recognized as one of the best discussion on the subjects ever written.”
In December of 1903, the Times reported that Ruckman and four other members of the Torpedo Board visited ports in Long Island in order to prepare for the submarine defense of that locality.
1904 would be year of suffering, sorrow and loss for Ruckman. A newspaper would later report that his “arduous service” at Fort Totten resulted in an “illness of many months” which demanded sick leave in Asheville, North Carolina. On March 4, he was relieved from command of the One Hundred and Fourteenth Company, Coast Artillery, and from duty at the School of Submarine Defense as instructor in the department of chemistry and explosives. The Times reported the “sick leave” in July of 1904, and Ruckman’s father, a “well known resident of Champaign County,” died in Urbana, Illinois, the following month. Thomas Ruckman, who drove his horse and buggy around the “section” almost daily with his grandchildren, died of heart failure (resulting from Renall disease) at the age of seventy-two. In September, his grieving son was given a four-month’s extension on a surgeon’s certificate of disability.
Captain Ruckman’s friendship with Colonel Arthur L. Wagner was highlighted when the Washington Post reported on his visit to the gravely ill Colonel in Asheville in May of 1905. Wagner was considered one of the “best-known strategists and tacticians in the United States Army.” His work Outpost Duty was in general use throughout the Army and the word was that he would soon become a brigadier general. Wagner had also served as the first President of the Army War College
Ruckman did not report from sick leave (at Fort Du Pont, Delaware) until August of 1905, when he took command of the 112th company. In February of 1906, the Washington Post reported Captain Ruckman was ordered back to Fort Monroe, Virginia, to appear before the president of an examining board that would determine his “fitness for promotion.” Ruckman was made Major of the Artillery Crop on June 30 and sent to the Presidio of San Francisco where he remained until January of 1909. In the Fall of 1906, Ruckman’s son, John Hamilton Ruckman, entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In October of 1908, Theodore Roosevelt ordered Major Ruckman and a “board of officers” to report to the Presidio of San Francisco to examine officers and determine their fitness for promotion. Ruckman was designated as “president” of the examining board. He was then placed in command of Fort Baker (California) where he remained from February of 1909 to November of 1910, followed by a one-month leave of absence.
When Ruckman's orders for Manila came, the officers of the National Guard of California gave him a "farewell" banquet" at the one-thousand-room Hotel St. Francis in "appreciation" of his organization of the coastal artillery. Ruckman also published “Coast Artillery Practice” in 1908-1909 (Journal of United States Artillery). It was later observed that the article was “widely consulted both here and abroad.”
On October 9, 1910, the Washington Post “Army and Navy Gossip” section observed the retirement of Colonel William R. Hamilton would probably open the way for a promotion for Major Ruckman, who was granted a one month leave of absence shortly thereafter. Indeed, Ruckman was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Coast Artillery Corps on February 2, 1911, and made commander of Fort Mills, Corregidor. A little over one year later, Ruckman was promoted to Colonel of the Coast Artillery Corps and designated to act as an “umpire” of all coast artillery target practice in the Philippine Islands.
Ruckman was detailed to the Inspector General’s Office in April of 1912 and assumed command of the Coast Defenses of Manila Bay the following month. He was stationed at the Fortress of Corregidor, which was then under construction. In the summer of 1913, a “war scare” resulted in seven thousand men being stationed on the island. Ruckman received high marks for his continued efforts toward the construction of batteries, barracks, power plants and store houses and, at the same time, organizing and provisioning the garrison that was thrust upon him with little notice. He also traveled extensively throughout the islands and in China, Japan and Korea.
On August 22, 1913, Colonel Ruckman was relieved of command of the newly constructed Fort Mills and ordered to proceed to the United States and report to the adjunct general of the army for assignment to a station. In January of 1914, he was granted another leave of absence for one month. In that year, he expressed his continuing concern regarding the gulf between theory and practice in a piece entitled Observation of Coast Artillery Fire, in Comparison with Authorized Methods.
The following March, Washington Post headline read: COL. RUCKMAN AT WASHINGTON. The Post noted Ruckman and his wife and daughter had “taken apartments” at the Woodley, Columbia Road, a mere two miles from the White House. Two days later, it was reported that Ruckman was assigned to duty as assistant to the chief coast artillery. On March 14, Ruckman and Captain Archibald Sunderland were ordered to “report upon the location of batteries, searchlights, observing stations, and building requisite for gun, mortar, and mine defense, and barracks and quarters and administration and other buildings connected with the accommodation of garrison of four companies of coast artillery at Cape Henry, Virginia.”
By June, Colonel and Mrs. Ruckman were prominent hosts at the increasingly popular “roof dinners” held at the Army and Navy Club in Washington. In July, Ruckman was detailed to enter the next class at the Army War College on August 15.
Ruckman graduated from the Army War College in June of 1915. The Secretary of War had established the College in 1901 and Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of its primary building in 1903. The structure is located on the grounds of Ft. McNair, in Washington D.C., where Abraham Lincoln’s conspirators were held and hanged. The primary goal of the Army War College was to prepare selected officers (usually colonels and lieutenant colonels) for high command. Today, the Army War College has been moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Ft. McNair hosts the National War College.
In February of 1915, Colonel Ruckman of the Coast Artillery submitted a forty-three page “historical study” to the War College on the siege of Port Arthur (Student Paper, Army War College, 1915. 37 p. DS517.3R822.1915). Later that year, the study appeared in the form of a ninety-nine-page lead article in the Journal of the United States Artillery (Volume 44, No. 3). While the article is lengthy, highly detailed and often of a technical nature, Ruckman’s general conclusions and occasional character sketches shed some light on his own personality and thought processes.
Port Arthur was located on the Liaoyang peninsular in Southern Manchuria. Today, it is known as Lushun, China, and serves as an important naval base. Previous to 1894, the area featured an “inconspicuous fishing village” which (four years later) was leased by Russia from China for trading opportunities. By the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, it had been designated as the official winter station for the Russian fleet and thus it was “imperative for Japan to destroy it at the earliest possible date.”
Ruckman observed that Japan “quietly bided her time” and “silently prepared” for the event. On February 4, 1904 it launched a surprise nighttime torpedo attack on the Port and settled into siege operations by the month of May. Ruckman observed the Russians “mistook the Japanese torpedo boats for their own” and “appeared to be unfamiliar with the appearance of their own ships.” As the Japanese secured the environment to implement the siege, the Russian fleet attempted nothing and did nothing. Meanwhile, the land forces “made no reconnaissance of any value” and “lost all touch” with the Japanese. Eight months later, the Russians had lost several battleships and cruisers and over a dozen gunboats. On January 2, 1905, the Port was surrendered “prematurely” and Japan marched into Korea. As the Tsarist government came under sharp criticism, Lenin called the capture of the Port, “one of the greatest events in modern history.”
Generals Stoessel, Smirnoff, Fock and Reis were tried by court martial in the winter of 1907-8 (three years after the fact). Smirnoff and Reis were acquitted of all charges. Although he was found guilty, Fock received no punishment. Stoessel was sentenced to death, had his sentence commuted to ten years confinement in a fortress and would up serving only one. Ruckman noted the written defenses of Stoessel and Fock were enlightening in the respect that:
It often happens that a man in trying to excuse himself of certain misdoings will throw more side lights on upon his character and motives than can be affected in any other manner.
Of Stoessel, Ruckman wrote:
[he] never issued orders except as to some small unimportant detail of routine nature. Generally he discussed tactical questions after the event; and after stating his own opinions in hazy generalizations, would approve Fock’s propositions to retreat, which the later presented to him as an urgent necessity.
Of Fock, Ruckman wrote:
[he] always had a horror of using his men and spent most of his time looking for places in the rear upon which to fall back of to provide them with some contingency which might form an excuse for retirement.
Of Stoessel and Fock, Ruckman wrote:
Neither [had] stomachs for real fighting and they never indulged in the same if it were possible to avoid it no matter what might be the object to the gained. None of the records show that either of them was at anytime during the siege present where his own skin might be in serious danger.
These judgments were placed in contrast to Ruckman’s own general view of leadership and administration. At page 4 of the article he noted the complexities of military leadership were such that a commander
should be firm, persistent, patriotic, of wide experience in human nature, keen in fathoming of motives, of high integrity, and possess sufficient knowledge and ability to command respect and a certain amount of admiration from his subordinates.
On page 72, he further elaborated:
An officer placed in high command with its accompanying responsibilities is entitled to clear and definite decisions as to his authorities and duties. A supreme commander who knows what is required, can, if so disposed, state his orders and instructions in such language that no room for doubt or argument will remain as to his desires and intentions. If, on the other hand, he wishes to dodge responsibility for what may follow, he may word his orders so as to leave opportunities for “interpretation” and loop holes for his own escape. Ambiguous or indefinite instructions, are, as a rule, the agencies of weak men who have not formed clear ideas of a situation or who wish to avoid the obligations that will follow the execution of any definite policy, and who will shy, even at the ghosts of responsibility should the same happen to haunt them.
Ruckman’s discussion of the siege at Port Arthur ended with a listing of no less than thirty-five factors that “seriously affected the result adversely.” Many of the items focused on a common theme: “over-organization,” the “unnecessary complexity of administration” and an excess of “commanding officers.” But he also saw a critical lack of experience and “cooperation” and “team work.” From a more modern standpoint, Ruckman’s focus on “defective intelligence” and “under-estimation and contempt of the enemy” was interesting. The article ended with the suggestion that the seizure of the Port illustrated the old axiom that “the flag in itself does not defend a fortress or any other place.”
Today, the library in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, contains both the student paper and Journal article mentioned above. A third paper is listed in the War College’s catalogue, but as of October 2004, is lost - "Operations From Cold Harbor 1864 to Include the Siege Operations Up to July 31, 1864” (Paper, Army War College, 1915. 50 p. E476.52R83.1915)
In April of 1916, Colonel Ruckman was relieved from duty as Commander of Fort Adams, Rhode Island, the second largest masonry fortification in the United States. Irish immigrant stonemasons built the instillation over a period of thirty years. He was ordered to report to the president of the Naval War College, in Newport, “for purpose of completing the course.” Ruckman graduated the following June and was one of only two officers chosen to represent the army in the class of 1916.
The Naval War College was created in October of 1884 and, early on, began the practice of recruiting high-ranking officers from the other branches of service. Its curriculum was established by Stephen B. Luce and Alfred Thayer Mahan, who believed the philosophical study of military and naval history were the primary tools of discovery for a science of naval warfare.
The seventy-two-page thesis Ruckman submitted to the Naval War College was entitled The Military Policy of the United States. This manuscript is currently on file at the War College but is missing two pages (page three and page thirty-three).
From the very start, Colonel Ruckman’s thesis took on a tone that was clearly reminiscent of the writings of Nicole Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, the empirical emphasis of the then budding discipline of Political Science, and the so-called “realist” approach to the study of International Relations.
He argued, for example, that it was “evident” that nations were “actuated by selfish motives to secure selfish ends” and that, in times of “great crises,” the “codes of morals” that were “applicable to individuals” played but “a small part.” More darkly, the Colonel noted “the average intelligence of a crowd” was “at best” very “low” during a time of war and “no longer measurable by any criterion of intelligence or reason.” In such circumstances, leaders are apt to “accord with the dictates of the crowd” and “moral responsibility” and “what is best or what ought to be” generally cease to be relevant. Ruckman wrote:
In dealing with nations it need not be questioned that obedience to the Ten Commandments might be highly desirable but this result appears too far distant in the realms of the ideal since it is not possible to fix the responsibility for violations thereof. This is regrettable but cannot be changed … At the present time many people constantly endeavor to bring about universal happiness and peace upon earth [but] Nature in evolving her laws proceeds by simple natural processes without taking metaphysical considerations into her confidence.
From this perspective, Ruckman suggested George Washington was “better qualified” than “any man of his time” to assess the dangers of international difficulties for the nation and he (and “possibly one or two others”) foresaw “with clear vision” and was able to “advise wisely.” But - Ruckman quickly emphasized - Washington had no “theories” about war or policy. He had actual “experience” on the field and, of course, as President of the United States. And those experiences led Washington to conclude that our nation should “prepare for war” in “time of peace” and, “at all times,” it should be “known” that we are “ready for war.”
Washington further argued that, “had we formed a permanent army in the beginning” that was “capable of discipline,” there would have been no retreat across the Delaware, long winter encampments, capture of Philadelphia, or desperation at Valley Forge. The “evils” to be apprehended from a standing army were, to Washington, “remote” and “not at all to be dreaded.” Regular troops “alone are equal to the exigencies of modern war, as well as for defense as offense” and he believed no militia could “ever acquire the habits necessary to resist a regular force.”
Ruckman complained that this “timely warning” had been “ignored” and (still worse) there was a “strong and growing sentiment” in the Nation to “disregard it forever.” Washington’s “correct principles” and “far-reaching policy” were increasingly neglected in favor of “vaporings concerning the rights of men and similar twaddle.”
In order to document the “sorrow” that was the consequence of the failure to follow Washington’s advice, Ruckman provided a brief “historical review.” The principle theme of this review was highlighted in a paragraph that read:
The Americans had, from their earliest days been hardy, venturesome, fearless and independent men. They existed without any form of restrain or discipline except that induced by their surroundings, and it had always been difficult to bring them and their descendants with in the limitation of legal restriction, but what is more to the point here, they were and remained pioneers upon the border, many of whom, upon the approach of civilization, pressed further and further back into the wilderness, driving the natives before them and preparing the new country for the advancing wave of settlers. In them we may perceive the genius of empire building which has played such a prominent part in our national development.
Ruckman suggested these behavioral trends among the population were mirrored in the national government, which began to feature “the constant tendency to acquire and the acquirement of additional territory” (Canada, the Northwest Territory, Louisiana, Florida, Oregon, Texas, California, the Gadsden Purchase, Alaska, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippine Islands and Panama). Thus, as far as Ruckman was concerned, “most if not all” Americans were “expansionists” at heart and they “embodied the empire building instinct.” In a later passage, the thesis described Americans as “an extremely confident race actuated by strong impulse of aggression and expansion.”
In a credit to the rigor of his analysis, Ruckman recognized Washington’s additional advice to avoid “foreign entanglements” had not been “strictly followed.” But, he argued, things had “radically changed” since Washington’s day and the increasing “status” and “reach” of the Nation’s interests had created a situation where it was “not always easy” to “keep clear” of such entanglements. Ruckman guessed that the “extremely offensive policy” known as the Monroe Doctrine had, in all probability, signaled the “awakening” of the United States to “its part in the world.” And all the “signs” indicated that “part” it would be a “great one.”
Ruckman then turned the focus of his thesis more particularly to the attitude of Americans toward war. He noted Americans have “always taken great credit” for being “high minded and peaceful, and opposed to complications with other nations.” On the other hand, he noted that it had “often difficult” to convince other nations to see us in that particular light. Indeed, other nations were quite skeptical of the notion that we have entered into war only when we had to do so, and only when our cause was more “righteous” than that of our enemy.
In addition, Ruckman noted the presence of an “element” in American society that ignored “first principles” and “human nature” in an attempt to “banish war from the future.” These “idealists” (often backed by “rich men who do not know how else to spend their money”) were also quite “aggressive” in their attempt to convince everyone else of the “correctness” of this view through “pacifist propaganda.” Ruckman, of course, rejected their “theory” outright, as it would leave the country unprepared, unnerved and helpless in a time of emergency. The “lessons” of history encouraged him to push aside “indulging in the Indefinite Amplification of the Ideal.” It came down to this: anyone who has ever said wars were a thing of the past has always been “mistaken.”
Reminding his readers of the War of Independence, the Second War with Great Britain, the Mexican War, the Great Civil War, the Spanish War, and “a great number of smaller affairs,” Ruckman suggested war had a “deadly grip on the world” and any assumption that ignored this fact that was “not safe.” In a passage that would have clearly pleased Thomas Hobbes, Ruckman noted the cave men “waged war” and, at more “civilized stages,” mankind was merely more “armed and organized” for their “bloody encounters.” The “titanic struggle for mastery” was still on and still quite “severe.” The “struggle for existence” would, if anything, “become intensified with time.”
With these observations behind him, Ruckman’s thesis then explained his own outline for future policy of the United States. This section was prefaced, however, with acknowledgment of heavy reliance upon the writing of Major General Emory Upton (1839-1881), a fellow West Point graduate and protégé of Sherman who distinguished himself in the War Between the States and, afterward, toured the world to study military tactics. Upton was a prolific and influential writer and theorist when he stunned the military community by committing suicide while at his post at the Presidio in San Francisco. The forty-one year old General who had left home at the age of fifteen to study under famed evangelist Charles G. Finney shot himself in the head.
William McKinley’s Secretary of War, Elihu Root, later arranged for the publication of one of Upton’s unfinished manuscripts, The Military Policy of the United States (1904) and it became an officially prescribed book for special study of army officers. Ruckman’s Naval War College thesis expressed regret that the number of readers of this particular publication of Upton was “so limited” as it was the “best” possible source of information for many important questions.
First, Ruckman observed that, in breaking away from Great Britain, the American people adhered to many British “prejudices.” Among them, was the notion that a standing army was a “menace to liberty,” despite the obvious “difference of circumstances” under a “republican government.” Ruckman argued, however, that standing armies have made heroic sacrifice “in the interests of liberty” and, in fact, there was “no stronger champion of liberty” to be found “in any period or in any land.” In addition, Washington, “who represented the nucleus of the opposition to the mother country” had no such ideas regarding standing armies.
Nor would one have expected Washington to harbor such prejudices, given his experience during the Revolution. The number of troops raised in 1777 was less than 50 percent of the quotas called for. The deficiencies were not corrected in any of the next four years. After the War, the army was disbanded and only 85 men were retained to guard storehouses and magazines. Ruckman noted the Nation “started wrong” on these matters and the “mistakes” had simply “clung to us” with “tenacity.”
Over five hundred thousand troops were used at different times during the War of 1812, but the Capital was burned, the seacoast ravaged and blockaded, trade had been destroyed, and the resulting treaty “studiously avoided” the “object for which the War was fought.” Indeed, Ruckman wrote, “we had just escaped humiliating terms.”
The Seminole War was three or four times more expensive than necessary because of the “extravagance” of depending upon “militia and volunteers.” The “great triumph” of the Mexican War was, according to Ruckman, “due to the character of the enemy almost entirely” and could not be attributed to “our organization and methods or our preparation for war.” Thus, up to the War Between the States, there was “decisive proof” that “a system of national defense based on the consent and cooperation of the sovereign states possessed none of the elements of certainty and strength, but on the other hand embodied elements of weakness and danger.”
Ruckman faulted Abraham Lincoln for “repeating the same mistake” as to enlistment “with all of its glaring defects.” On April 15, 1861, Lincoln called for seventy five thousand men to serve for a period of three months. The governors of the several states, however, “nullified” the President’s call. As a result, just before the Battle of Bull Run, many of the troops enlisted were about to finish their term of service. Commanding Generals of the North were forced to “urge and beg” their men to remain until the end of the battle!
Ruckman argued the Spanish American War found the Nation, once again, “wholly unprepared,” despite several years’ recognition that we would be dragged into the conflict. Enlistment periods were lengthened to two years and enlistees came in slowly and never met full requirements. When the War was formally “declared,” many troops were “not properly instructed, disciplined or even armed with an efficient arm” (Ruckman noted some soldiers in camp were placed “on guard” with sticks and clubs). Many more soldiers remained in camps for weeks because clothing and supplies were not available to them or the lack of proper medicines left them confined to their beds. “Deaths by the hundreds took place.” In addition to all of this, “none of the sea cost forts had any proper guns or ammunition.” Thus, the “salient feature” of the War was “military inefficiency.”
As Ruckman would put it later in the thesis, “if any great business enterprise had tried to follow similar methods to those applied in our military administration and operations the effort could not have lasted a single year.”
Ruckman found it interesting that the Navy had been more “fortunate” than the Army when it came to avoiding the impact of “objectionable legislation, theories of men ignorant of service, and other demoralizing influences.” He believed the Navy was at an advantage in these respects as it could not collect and organize great masses of men, it was funded by the national government, no “strong prejudice” against it had been handed down to posterity, and the expertise of nautical affairs discouraged politicians from seeking “high commands for their friends.” While such cronyism was certainly no less harmful in the Army, its effects were not nearly so “sudden, decisive and dramatic” as they would be in the Navy.
Nonetheless, Ruckman observed Naval policies had not always been “satisfactory.” Thomas Jefferson’s “theories” led him to ditch the construction of several frigates in exchange for “a large number of alleged coast defense gunboats.” Ruckman noted the boats were available for the War of 1812, but never faced the enemy. Indeed, their “chief function” appeared to be to “dodge the enemy” and retire into “small streams and bayous.”
Ruckman also mocked the manner in which the fleet was divided in 1898 and the “flying squadron” sat in Hampton Roads for weeks, doing nothing. The thesis sarcastically noted: “Valuable summer cottages and bathing-beaches along the New England and Jersey coasts needed the protection of the fleet and they got it.”
In his concluding remarks, Ruckman held “universal military service executed without partiality or favor is the strongest form of democracy and should be accepted for our military system.” Such a requirement would be no different than paying taxes, performing jury duty, attending schools in response to compulsory laws or rendering assistance to civil service officers. The past methods of “favoritism and makeshift” and “old-time-honored bungling and inefficiency” had created a people who “no longer tolerate the idea of being compelled to do military duty.” And, as a result, the Nation was “exposed to destruction.”
In one of the more intriguing passages of the thesis, Ruckman gives his own portrait of the American soldier:
Abundance of experience exists to prove that Americans are not afraid to face death, particularly when they are disciplined and know the nature of the danger. We know that however bravely they face death that they shun discipline and obedience. These impose too many restrictions upon their independent souls. They chafe and fret under restraint and fall frequently in combat owing to this weakness. The American becomes depressed at delays and disappointments, but will leave a monotonous camp with enthusiasm for battle. Untrained, he lacks the qualities of subordination and fortitude to fight successfully for the country. Being ignorant of the nature and necessity of discipline and with exaggerated ideas of his own ability and independence, he regards discipline as a disagreeable expression of tyrannical power of his officers and does not yield gracefully. However, when once he has passed through the actual experience of a crisis and sees how and where it applies and the necessity therefore, he becomes the best of all soldiers.
Ruckman believed universal service would provide valuable discipline to the American youth. This discipline would have military benefit, but also economic benefit in the Nation’s business communities. While he appreciated the fact that his proposal was “radical,” he believed the “next war” required both heroic resistance and remedies. The “holiday idea of war” had to give way to “the idea of responsibility, obligation and self-sacrifice inculcated and established in the land.”
The final pages of the Ruckman’s Naval War College thesis outlined a number of dramatic broad and narrow national policy proposals. Among the many specific proposals were these:
* prepare and introduce into our school and colleges text books embodying accurate and truthful history of the country
* instruct voters to a plane in which they will insist on their representative officials being fully informed on matter of internal politics and public policy
* instruct all boys and young men along the line followed by the boy scouts, and in rifle practice
* to maintain an army of sufficient size to mobilize enough trained men in five days upon the Atlantic Coast to defeat any single hostile expedition that can be sent out from Europe
* to adopt universal military service
* to abolish all state troops and state influence from our military system
In the final pages of the thesis, Ruckman tossed the mode of passionate, but reasoned analysis aside and switched into a rhetorical high gear. He observed “opposition to military preparation and efficiency” has been found in the “opinions of a great number of high official in every important office of the national government for the last century.” Holding these officials were responsible for the “grotesque attitude” of the people toward military matters and the “helpless condition” of the country, Ruckman challenged them, the American people, and pacifists in the first person.
He ended his work by recounting the tale of a legendary Roman warrior who knew what to do when an extraordinary bolt of lightening struck in the Forum of Rome:
A great gulf, it is said, once opened [and] that it had been foretold that the same would never be closed until the most valuable possession of Rome should be thrown therein. Curtius, a young noble, recognizing that nothing was more precious than a brave citizen threw himself into the abyss and the same was closed.
Ruckman argued the heroic act of Curtius was conclusive, but lamented the fact that the United States seemed to throw its brave and patriotic youth into a yawning gulf with each war. In his opinion, each time this was done, thousands were immolated needlessly. Ruckman asked, finally, “How long shall this continue? How long? Forever?”
In the closing months of 1915 and the beginning of 1916, Ruckman sought recommendation letters regarding his potential promotion to a higher grade. In the process he obtained a strong letter of support from Major General Henry Pinckney McCain, a.k.a. "the Father of the Selective Service," and the Adjutant General of the War Department, with whom he had served at Corregidor. He also received these reviews:
From: Austin M. Knight, Rear Admiral, President, Naval War College: Colonel Ruckman [is] one of the most earnest and conscientious students of the art of war that I have ever seen. He has taken a very important part in the work of the War College, his assistance and advice having been found of much value by the President and Staff in all matters where the interest of the Army and Navy touch. I have found his views in such matters to be advanced, but tempered by sound conservatism. I should think myself very fortunate to be associated with him in any operation calling for concerted action between the Army and Navy.
From James Franklin Bell, Major General U.S. Army: [Colonel] John W. Ruckman [served] under my command and close personal observation for two years or more in the Philippine Islands in the capacity of Acting Inspector on my staff and Commanding Officer of the troops on Corregidor Island. I came to know Colonel Ruckman intimately and learned to greatly respect and admire his professional qualifications. He was a most able, conscientious and painstaking officer of excellent judgment and great reliability. He could be confidently relied upon to carry out thoroughly and systematically any duty instructed to him …
From W. P. Duvall, Major General U.S. Army Retired: I certify that I have known this officer well throughout his professional career, we serving as lieutenant in the same regiment for seven and a half years, graduating together at the Artillery School [He] is an officer of high character, faultless habits, sensitive conscience, rugged physique and exceptional technical qualifications. He was ever a devoted, broad-minded, and successful student of his profession both in theory and in practice, and his family and social relations were in every way exemplary. Adding to all the foregoing [he] successfully commanded Fort Mills (really a general’s command) for a term of years, that he just completed the course at the Army War College and that he was selected by the War Department to take the course at the U.S. Naval War College [I] should consider any country fortunate which had such men as Colonel Ruckman in its highest technical military positions.
From John P. Wisser, Brigadier General Commanding: [In] his character he is forceful, self-reliant and of exceptional ability, his habits are unexceptional, he has the requisite initiative and energy to accomplish, and he has been a hard student of his profession throughout his military career. [The] Journal U.S. Artillery (one of the best periodicals of its kind) owes its beginnings mainly to him, and he is essentially progressive in his tendencies.
In the June 14, 1916, issue of the Army Navy Journal, Benjamin L. Bragg suggested Colonel Ruckman was among the “foremost candidates” in connection with upcoming brigadier vacancies. Bragg wrote, of Ruckman:
He has seen more foreign service than any other officer of his rank or any lieutenant colonel in the corps today. His writings on professional subjects are well known and valued in this and other armies; his practical experience has been wide and varied, and includes the successful handling of two years of a general officer’s command as commandant of the Coast Defense of Manila Bay. He holds the unique distinction of being the only officer in our Army today who has met and solved the problem of provisioning, mobilizing and organizing the garrison of a large fortress against siege, having as commandant of this, perhaps the most vital district of the American possessions – certainly so at the time – been confronted by this situation during the summer of 1913, well remembered for the strained relations then existing between Japan and the United States. He is the only Army officer of his rank who is a graduate of both the Army and Navy War Colleges, and Navy officers are as cordial as those of his own corps in expressing their appreciation of his merits. Certainly as good an opportunity is seldom offers the authorities for showing their ability to discern sterling merit and high power efficiency.
On July 3, Ruckman was assigned to organize and command the 5th Provisional Coast Artillery Regiment at Del Rio, Texas. He was then given command of El Paso Rio Grande and the district of Laredo. He also wrote a series of papers on Strategy, Logistics and Tactics.
But, on July 22, 1916, the Washington Post reported Ruckman was nominated to be Brigadier General. Indeed, on the evening of August 21, Ruckman received a telegram announcing that the President of the United States had signed his commission and that he was to telegraph his acceptance to the President as soon as possible. Ruckman responded and, two days later, requested the officers of the 5th Provisional to assemble at the Artillery mess to celebrate his good fortune. The 14th Cavalry Band was reported to have played a “beautiful program” which “added materially to the enjoyment [of the] occasion.”
The following day, Ruckman’s commission arrived and Captain Rucker and the band of the 14th Cavalry provided “a beautiful complimentary concert.” Numerous officers and dignitaries then called upon Ruckman en masse to shout out their congratulations.
Rinaldi (2005) notes the continental United States was divided into four “departments” previous to May, 1917 (Eastern, Southern, Central and Western). Six “departments” were then created, an arrangement that lasted until August of 1920, when “departments” were discontinued altogether and replaced by nine “corps areas.” On July 11, 1917, Ruckman was assigned command of the South Atlantic Coast Artillery District. The District was part of the Southeastern Department and contained the coast defenses of Cape Fear, Charleston, Savannah, Tampa, Key West, Pensacola, Mobile, New Orleans and Galveston. Ruckman was made interim Commander of the Department a little over a month later.
On August 5, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson nominated Ruckman and several others for a second star and the rank of Major General in the National Army. The promotion was reported on page four of the Washington Post on August 21. Rinaldi (2005) notes that, in 1917, the U.S. Army had no general officer rank higher than Major General.
A few weeks after he received his second star, the Wichita Daily Times reported Major General Ruckman had arrived in San Antonio to replace Brigadier General James Parker as Commander of the Southern Department. The Department included Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona and its Headquarters were at Fort Sam Houston. The Department also had responsibility for patrolling much of the border with Mexico. Local newspapers, such as the San Antonio Light welcomed the Ruckman family with front-page spreads.
Howes Norris, Jr., son of the famously brutal sea captain and savvy collector, had the foresight to ask Ruckman for a copy of his autograph and, on September 10, the request was granted.The newly promoted General signed one of Norris’ signature “autograph collection” cards in the following manner: “Success to you with my best wishes, John W. Ruckman, Major General, National Army.”
General Ruckman had to also be pleased that his son, John Hamilton Ruckman, was located nearby (literally minutes away), at Fort Travis. John Hamilton had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California and was made a bayonet and physical instructor in the Army. As his father arrived in San Antonio, the son was in further training in communications and reconnaissance. He would soon be on his way to Europe as an intelligence officer with the American Expeditionary Forces.
Ruckman’s life would quickly become a more somber affair.
A little over a month before he took command of the Southern Department, members of the 24th infantry had clashed with civil authorities in Waco, Texas. On September 4, Ruckman reviewed the record of their trial and sentences and forwarded materials to Washington. Five soldiers were dishonorably discharged and each was given a five-year sentence at hard labor. A sixth soldier was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Less than a week before Ruckman came to the Southern Department, an event even more troublesome had taken place. Around noon, on August 23, 1917, two Houston policemen detained an African American soldier for interfering with their arrest of an African American woman. The soldier was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the arrest. When an African American military policeman inquired about the arrest later, he was also taken into custody. A rumor quickly reached camp, however, that the MP had been murdered. While a group soldiers decided that they would march on the police station they were startled by an additional rumor that an armed mob of white citizens was heading in their direction.
Thus, with the false report of a murder and the false report of an armed, oncoming mob, there began what would become known as the Houston Race Riot of 1917.
Sergeant Vida Henry led about one hundred and fifty African American soldiers in a two-hour march on the City of Houston. Mounted police failed to turn back the troops, but Illinois guardsmen arrived in time to throw a cordon between the soldiers and a great crowd of Houston residents who had armed themselves.
W.A. Wise, a mechanic, was shot in the arm three times and once in the back while trying to rescue another man who was bleeding to death from a chest wound while lying in the middle of the street. Alma Reichert, a fifteen-year-old girl, was shot in the stomach as she stood in the door of her father’s store. Fred Winkler was shot in the heart and William J. Drucks had his arm shattered by bullets when they simply stepped out onto a porch to see what was going on outside.
When all was said and done, seventeen persons were killed and twenty-two others were wounded. Among those slain were Captain J.W. Mattes, of the Illinois National Guard, four policemen (including E.S. Meinck and S. Satton), four soldiers and two women. Mattes was shot and bayoneted.
Martial law was declared in Houston and the 24th Infantry was removed from Fort Sam Houston to Columbus, New Mexico, and, eventually, the Philippines. On the way, seven soldiers agreed to testify in exchange for clemency. Sergeant Henry, who led the soldiers into Houston, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Such was the general environment in which Major General John Wilson Ruckman was made Commander of the Southern Department. Despite promptings from reporters, Ruckman refused to comment on the riot that had taken place one week earlier. He told newspapermen, on August 30, that he intended to first read reports and familiarize himself with the situation.
Professor Robert V. Haynes has written an excellent summary of the events surrounding the six-week investigation that led to the court martial of sixty-three men in November of 1918 (A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917, Louisiana State University Press, 1976). Almost two hundred witnesses testified across twenty-two days and left a record of over two thousand pages. While Haynes’ analysis mentions Ruckman several times throughout, it sheds very little “inside” detail or personal insight with respect to the decision making of the General.
Professor Haynes does, however, suggest that Ruckman was “especially anxious for the courts-martial to begin” (p. 251). Ruckman had preferred that the proceedings take place in El Paso, but eventually agreed to allow them to remain in San Antonio. Haynes writes that the decision was made to accommodate many of the witnesses who lived in Houston and “the countless spectators” who were interested in following the proceedings (p. 254).
Ruckman met with two prosecutors who arrived in San Antonio on September 13 (p. 249) and appointed the “most qualified officer in his department” (Major Grier) to serve as defense counsel (p. 251). Haynes notes Ruckman promised Grier “as much time as he needed to prepare,” but also “made it clear that he wanted a trial to commence as soon as possible” (p. 251). That turned out to be about two week’s time.
Ruckman also “urged” the War Department to select a “prestigious court” (p. 255). Eventually, three brigadier generals were chosen, along with seven colonels and three lieutenant colonels. Eight of the members were West Point graduates. The court also featured an admirable geographic balance between northerners, southerners and westerners.
The Departmental Judge Advocate General, Colonel George Dunn, reviewed the record of the first court martial that followed the Houston Riot (also known as “the Nesbit Case.”) and approved the sentences. He then forwarded materials to Ruckman on December 3. On December 9, thirteen of the prisoners were told that they would be hanged, but were not informed of the time or place (p.3). Evidently, the court recommended clemency for one Private Hudson, but General Ruckman declined to extend such.
The condemned soldiers (one sergeant, four corporals, and eight privates) were transferred to a barracks on December 10. Later, that evening, motor trucks carried new lumber for scaffolds to some bathhouses built for the soldiers at Camp Travis near a swimming pool in the Salado Creek. The designated place of execution was a few hundred yards away. Army engineers completed their grim work by the light of bonfires.
While forty thousand of their comrades slept, the thirteen troops were awakened and brought to the place of execution at five in the morning. They were hanged, simultaneously, one minute before sunrise, at seven seventeen. The scaffolds were then disassembled and every piece was carried back to Fort Sam Houston. The New York Times, impressed by the clean-up operations, observed the place of execution and place of burial were “indistinguishable.”
Only army officers and County Sheriff John Tobin had witnessed the affair.
Haynes notes General Ruckman “announced the verdicts and executions” at nine o’clock in the morning to a small group of “surprised and highly annoyed” newspapermen. Most of them had been fooled by a rumor that the hangings would take place at Camp Stanley, thirty miles north of San Antonio (p. 7). Professor Haynes writes that the rumor was “obviously planted by military authorities” and concludes that, while it was “ostensibly designed for security purposes,” it was also “calculated” to “infuriate” black Americans and “to please” white citizens (pp. 7, 273). Unfortunately, Haynes provides no insight whatsoever as to possible motives that would have been satisfied (or perceived goals that would have been accomplished) by infuriating black Americans.
Ruckman told reporters that he had personally approved the death sentences and announced that forty-one men were given life sentences and four others received sentences of two and a half years or less. He also informed newspapermen that it was he who has selected the time and place for the hangings (p. 7).
The Washington Post guessed it was the first “wholesale execution” in the army since the execution of the so-called “St. Patrick’s Battalion” by General Winifield Scott in September of 1847. Scott hanged forty-six members of the Battalion during the Mexican War. The Atlanta Constitution expressed satisfaction, however, that “justice” had been done in a “deliberate, mature, carefully weighted and unbiased” manner. The Charlotte Observer wrote that the “patience” had been “rewarded” and “confidence” had been restored.
Frederick Wiener’s 1989 Military Law Review articles on World War I court martial controversies suggest that, “until the news of the multiple hangings at Houston reached the Washington papers, no one in the War Department had even heard of the trial.” But the Houston Riot – and the trial that followed – were hardly “local news.” The Washington Post and the New York Times had certainly given the riot extensive, front-page coverage. Over a week before the hangings, the Post reported that that “a verdict” had been reached in the court martial and that the findings would be reviewed by advocate general of the Southern Department and General Ruckman.
Ruckman filed the following report on December 11, 1917:
The proceedings, findings and sentences of the general court martial which tried the 63 members of the 24th infantry for participation in the Houston riots of Aug. 23 were approved by me on December 10. The court sentenced Sergt. William C. Nesbit, Corp. Larnon J. Brown, James Wheatly, Jesse Moore, Charles W. Baltimore; First Class Privates William Breckenridge, Thomas C. Hawkins, Carlos Snodgrass, Ira E. Davis, James Divins, Frank Johnson and R. W. Young, all of Company I and First Class Private PLPatt McWhorter, Company M to capital punishment. The sentence has been executed.
In addition, the War Department issued an official statement on December 11, which stated General Ruckman’s power in the matter was “absolute” and his decision-making did not have to be reviewed or approved by anyone in Washington. In sum, the executions were in accordance with known rules and policies. The official statement further explained that Ruckman did not announce the hangings in advance “to avoid unrest among the Negroes of the country and to prevent the president from being deluged with petitions for clemency.” As the Washington Post did not report on the hangings until the day after the War Department’s official statement (December 12), Weiner’s suggestion that it learned about the matter by reading the Post is clearly problematic.
Indeed, the Post itself reported that Washington officials knew about the hangings when they were announced at Fort Sam Houston. Similarly, the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel reported knowledge of the sentences was not widespread in the War Department, but “doubtless” they were known to “a few high officials.” The announcement at Fort Sam Houston clearly changed all of that, however. Thus, it would seem only the most uninformed individuals in the War Department could have actually first heard of the hangings by reading about them in the newspapers.
Ruckman’s concern about immoderate interest seemed quite justified when the Wichita Daily Times reported “curious and souvenir hunting throngs” had “flocked” to the scene of the hanging and burial. The Commander of the Southern Department fully anticipated such behavior and placed an armed guard of eights soldiers in the area to stand watch day and night. Anyone who attempted to come within one hundred feet of the scene received a rude awakening.
Six days later, a second court martial (also known as “the Washington Case”) began. This time, fifteen men of the Lower A Division were tried and five of them were sentenced to hang. On January 2, 1918, Ruckman approved of the verdicts and sentences in a public statement. Professor Haynes notes, however, “General Ruckman did not make the same mistake again” (p. 279). This time, the Commander of the Southern Department waited until both the Secretary of War and President Woodrow Wilson could review the case.
But Haynes’ suggestion seems odd for at least three reasons. First, as Weiner’s 1989 law review articles clearly point out, what Ruckman had done in the first court martial was “entirely legal” and “in complete conformity” with the 1916 Articles of War. Indeed this conclusion was generally reported in the nation’s newspapers. Ruckman’s decision-making was, thus, unsurprisingly approved (after the fact) by the Judge Advocate General’s Office.
Second, a new rule - General Orders No. 167, dated December 29, 1917 - prohibited the execution of any death sentence until after review by the Judge Advocate General’s Office. Haynes provides no reason whatsoever to justify the notion that Ruckman had any motive to violate the new rule or even considered doing so.
Third, just over two weeks after Ruckman approved of the verdicts in the second court martial, the War Department also issued General Orders No. 7 requiring that – as a matter of policy - all death sentences be suspended until the President of the United States could officially review all records. It is almost certain that Major General Ruckman was aware that this order was in the making and/or coming down the line.
These changes in rules and procedures had a predictable effect. The Washington Post now reported that representatives from the New York branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had presented a petition to President Wilson to extend clemency to the five soldiers recently sentenced to hang.
While such leaders attempted to shape the President’s view of the Houston Riots, Ruckman went on his own sort of political campaign. As 1917 ended, the Wichita Daily Times reported that he visited with Democratic Governor William P. Hobby. In January of 1918, he met with a group of fifty ministers from San Antonio and called for the eradication of “saloons, vice and gambling” in the city. The Daily Times noted the ministers represented “every denomination” (Catholic, Protestant and Jewish). The audience cheered Ruckman for his “effective” work and drank a toast in water.
The Commander of the Southern Department also traveled one hundred and twenty miles west of San Antonio to historic Fort Clark (Brackettville, TX). Ruckman gave a dedication speech for the opening of a Young Men’s Christian Association building there. The building later became the Service Club and stands to this day (2005).
In March of 1918, Ruckman wrote a circular and distributed it to all of the members of the Texas State legislature as they met in the Capital at Austin. The Daily Times described General Ruckman as a “gruff soldier” who did not “mince words.” Indeed, Ruckman’s “use of English” was “limited to the exact expression of his thoughts.” As a result, the circular was described by the Daily Times as the most “distinctly interesting” document that had come to the Capital “in many a day.”
The General first took the City of San Antonio to task for having guaranteed a “clean up” that would allow for the stationing of a division of soldiers. Ruckman noted, that although the soldiers had been there six months, “the clean up” had “never materialized.” Nor had there even been an “honest effort.” Instead, responsible parties sent “delegations” to Washington to prove the situation was fine, or “not any worse than other places.” As Ruckman put it, “they transferred their field of operations from the city to Washington” and were otherwise “sleeping on the job.” Of course, by distribution the circular, Ruckman left himself open to the criticism that he had transferred his own field of operation from the city to the state legislature.
Even worse, Ruckman suggested city officials were operating on the assumption that the government would not actually remove the troops and rebuild elsewhere because of the potential for enormous expense. Thus, they were engaged in what the General called a “strong and persistent bluff.” Ruckman noted, however, that it would be a “simple matter” to remove all troops from the area and that that real possibility should “arouse all the people of the city.” Tradesmen in the area were suffering “serious losses” to a “few persons” who were responsible for “liquor, gambling and vice” in the area and, if the military were to pull out, the situation might be even worse.
Finally, Ruckman argued the “majority” of people in San Antonio had “misconceived the nature and purpose” of the Federal Laws which were “in issue in the country.” The “great mass” were only seeing a “small portion” of the “broad problem” and, even then, “as only through a glass darkly.” Nonetheless, wrote Ruckman, the “execution” of the laws in question could “no longer” be treated as “matters of opinion.” The “opinions,” “theories,” “sayings,” “small and extraneous or specious arguments” of those whose material interests were affected by the law could not be considered equal to a national “movement” that was “too great” to be “modified.”
The circular ended with a call to the “honorable” Governor (elected on an anti-prohibitionist platform) to “stand by the demands of the whole Nation” and avoid “politics” of the “most narrow gauge species.” The “liquor interests” in San Antonio were strong, and might very well harm his chances for re-election, but the Nation’s welfare was more important than the interests of “small, narrow men.”
Four days later, Ruckman was news in the Texas State Legislature once again as a bill regarding the teaching of German language in the state schools was considered. Representative Davis of Harris County was reported to have conferred with the General on the matter. Ruckman opposed the teaching of that language and argued that, if it became necessary for our soldiers to learn it, they could simply do so after they “go across.”
On March 12, as Texas lawmakers considered the topic of female suffrage and whether or not to allow “moving picture shows” to be open on Sunday, they adopted a formal resolution that expressed appreciation to the commander of the Southern Department for the work he had done “in behalf of the soldiers training in Texas.”
Meanwhile, Ruckman approved the holding of a third court martial (also known as “the Tillman Case”) to try another forty men. Haynes suggests the announcement of the third trail encouraged President Wilson to wait to review records until all of the verdicts were in for the Houston Riot cases. On March 26, twenty-three soldiers were found guilty. Eleven were sentenced to hang and the other twelve were sentenced to life in prison. On May 2, Ruckman approved the sentences.
Ruckman’s celebrity status was clear. He appeared to be prosecuting the offenders in the Houston Riot in a thorough manner. Newspaper ads for the theater now emphasized billings were “endorsed by Major General Ruckman, Commander of the Southern Depart.” Other newspapers throughout the nation listed Ruckman’s birthday as a notable event in the day’s news.
But the clouds that Ruckman may have very well expected came soon enough. In May, it was reported he had “failed to pass the physical examination for overseas service.” As a result, his rank as major general was forfeited, he was relieved of his position as Commander of the Southern Department and he resumed the rank of brigadier general. In addition, Ruckman was reassigned to the Northeastern Department, in Boston. On May 1, he was officially returned to the grade of brigadier general and, two days later, Major General Willard A. Holbrook was named by the War Department to commander the Southern Department.
The May 10 issue of the San Antonio Express responded to the news of Ruckman’s departure as follows:
He leaves San Antonio with San Antonio’s gratitude. He leaves with the endorsement and the thanks of the mothers of San Antonio; in eloquent resolutions the organizations of the womanhood of the city tell him what his stand has accomplished; the ministerial union, the clergymen representing the congregations of scores of churches, have put in plain language their regard and appreciation – something few men ever achieve – he has been officially thanked by the state of Texas. The legislature’s resolution, pointing out the invaluable assistance the commander of the Southern Department rendered in the cleaning of the state, went to Washington and the War Department replied in full measure of recognition. San Antonio will not forget General Ruckman, a friend, tried and true, admired and respected by all good citizenship. His name will be written large in the annals of the new, the greater, the better San Antonio. His work will march on.
Weiner’s 1989 Military Law Review articles suggest, however, that Ruckman’s discharge from the rank of major general was a consequence of his “obvious utter lack of judgment.” This notion was perhaps further reinforced by testimony of Brigadier General Samuel T. Ansell before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs in August of 1919. Ansell described Ruckman’s decision making as a “gross abuse of power” that justified the “forfeiture of his commission.” He also suggested both Ruckman and the Judge Advocate, Colonel Dunn, had manifested “incompetence at a critical time.”
These comments would seem to suggest then that the “failed” physical might have very well have been a less shameful way in which the War Department could punish the highly decorated Ruckman. This theory is complicated, however, by at least three factors. First, Ruckman’s sick leave record clearly documented that he had had a history of poor health and, after all, he was fifty-nine years old at the time of the physical. Second, the Secretary of War and the Judge Advocate General’s Office approved all of Ruckman’s decisions with respect to the court martials and, in August of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson issued a public statement that, among other things, defended Ruckman’s decision making as well (see discussion below). Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Professor Haynes notes that, after Ruckman’s departure from Texas, the hanging of soldiers connected with the Houston Riot of 1917 continued, and were conducted in very much the same manner as they had been when Ruckman was in charge.
The 1922 Annual Report of the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy suggests Ruckman’s spirit “apparently suffered” after being removed from the head of the Southern Department and he was never “quite the same.” He was said to have borne his “crushing disappointment with fortitude” but the word soon got around that Ruckman would never see action in France – where the work he had been preparing himself for all of his life awaited him. The Annual Report states that, while he continued to perform his official duties in a devoted manner, Ruckman lost an “edge” as a result of the disappointment, “he felt his fires burning out,” and the “inspiration” had gone.
Nonetheless, the General defended his decision making in Texas with vigor when George Page, President of the American Bar Association made a public speech and condemned the hangings as an “injustice.” Ruckman responded that his decisions were neither “quick” nor “rash” as he had reviewed the testimony of each trial “every day.” In addition, he waited “nearly two weeks” before carrying out the sentences and five Judge Advocate Generals had approved of his every action. In addition, Ruckman took credit for bringing “together” the “widely distributed” regiment involved and changing it into “one of the best in the service.” Col. Dunn would later emphasize that all thirteen soldiers confessed their guilt on the morning of the hangings.
On May 24, 1918, the Bridgeport Telegram reported Ruckman had taken charge of the Northeastern Department, a position that he would hold until July 20. The Department contained the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut and was headquartered at Boston.
The General’s first brush with reporters had a familiar ring to it, but was also seasoned with the bitterness of experience. He announced that he had not selected his staff and had no plans whatsoever with respect to the Department. Nor would he even “attempt” to make any until he had the opportunity to “look the situation over.” Ruckman noted that he had never been in that service before and was connected with Naval operations at New Port, Rhode Island, for only one year.
On July 21, 1918, General Ruckman was placed in command of the North Atlantic Coast Artillery District, a position that he held until his death. The District was part of the Northeastern Department and embraced the coast defenses of Portland, Portsmouth, Boston, New Bedford and Narragansett Bay. The headquarters for the District were also in Boston.
The mess in Texas was now behind him, but the ramifications of the Houston Riot court martials were not. On August 31, President Woodrow Wilson granted clemency to ten soldiers by commuting their death sentences to life in prison. But Wilson also issued a rare public statement in order that the basis of his action might be “a matter of record.”
The President’s statement began by recounting the events that led to the deaths of “innocent bystanders” who were “peaceable disposed civilians of the City of Houston.” He noted the investigations that followed were “very searching and thorough.” In each of the three proceedings, the court was “properly constituted” and composed of “officers of experience and sobriety of judgment.” Wilson also noted “extraordinary precautions” were taken to “insure the fairness of the trials” and, in each instance, the rights of the defendants were “surrounded at every point” by the “safeguards” of “a humane administration of the law.” As a result, there were “no legal errors” which had “prejudiced the rights of the accused.”
Wilson then stated that he affirmed the death sentences of six soldiers because there was “plain evidence” that they “deliberately” engaged in “shocking brutality.” On the other hand, the President commuted the remaining sentences because he believed the “lesson” of the lawless riot had already been “adequately pointed.” He also desired that the “splendid loyalty” of African American troops be recognized and expressed his hope that clemency would inspire others of that race “to further zeal and service to the country.”
Most importantly, from General Ruckman’s standpoint, Wilson wrote that the actions taken by the former Commander of the Southern Department were “legal and justified by the record.” Indeed, the President agreed that “a stern redress” of the rioters’ “wrongs” was the “surest protection of society against their further recurrence.”
Thus, on September 29, 1918, five more troops were hanged at daybreak. One week later, a sixth was marched to the gallows.
Ruckman wrote a letter to Professor Wirt Robinson, of West Point, in July of 1919, requesting on “the total number of living graduates of the Academy and names of any of the more recent classes who took part in the War, with the numbers killed or wounded therein.” Ruckman also requested data on the number of graduates who were in the Military Service, at that time, so that he could “determine the percentage of regular officers who [were] graduates of the Academy.” The general informed the professor that the data would be useful in addressing some “very severe and unsubstantiated statements” that were being made against the Academy and its graduates. One such statement suggested, “the graduates of the Military Academy fell down in their duties; that the regular officers in the War showed not only incompetence, but cowardice.”
In August, September and October of 1919, a subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs for the Sixty-Sixth Congress met to consider Senate Bill 64, A Bill to Establish Military Justice. The hearing began with a jarring statement by retired Major J.E. Runcie (West Point, 1879) who announced that there was “not any such thing as military law.” By this, he meant there was nothing “established” or “capable of being known or ascertained or determined.”
Former Brigadier General Samuel T. Ansell (West Point, 1899) and acting Judge Advocate General for the Army testified on August 25. Ansell’s career had interesting parallels with General Ruckman’s. After graduating from the United States Military Academy, he served in Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1900. For several years afterward, he bounced back and forth between teaching at the Military Academy and service in the Philippines.
Ansell entered into the record a memo that he had written to the Judge Advocate General of the Army back on December 12 of 1917. The subject of the letter was “evidence of the inefficiency of Maj. Gen. John W. Ruckman,” Commander of the Southern Department, and a Colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Department. It claimed Ruckman failed to “exercise his power to prevent gross injustice to the enlisted men of his command” notwithstanding “patent prejudicial errors” in their trials and responded to the executions:
I shall not allude to the case further than to say that, under the circumstances surrounding this case which were such as to reveal themselves sin all their bearings to a man of ordinary prudence and care, a man possessing the poise and sanity of judgment that should be necessary concomitant of the rank which this officer holds, could not have summarily carried into execution those sentences. Under the circumstances of this case the action taken by this commander was such a gross abuse of power as to justly to merit the forfeiture of his commission.
Ansell “assumed” that Ruckman had “sought and acted upon the advice of his judge advocate,” Colonel Dunn, so Dunn had “manifested his incompetence at a critical time” as well. Ansell complained that nothing was done about his letter and that no one bothered to even reply. He added:
Why, a decent regard for the orderly performance of such important duties it seems to me, would require considerable time to intervene between the approval of a death sentence and the execution of the men. Those men, surely, assuming their utmost guilt, as I do assume it, had the right to compose their affairs. They had the right to appeal to the President of the United States for clemency.
In April of 1920 Ruckman was listed among the “prominent persons” who were to attend an appearance by General Leonard Wood on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The general’s son had graduated from MIT in 1910 and had been selected to be the Editor of Technology’s War Record, a history of alumni participation in the First World War.
The controversy over the quality of participation by West Point graduates in the Great War was still a point of concern to the General the following month, when the New York Times reported on an exchange between Ruckman and the famed Dr. Charles William Eliot (1834-1926), President Emeritus of Harvard. Eliot was President of the university for forty years (1869-1909) and served as Editor of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf of Classics, a comprehensive anthology of literature, philosophy, religion and history which he believed would serve as a “good substitute for a liberal education” if placed in the hands of anyone who read “with devotion.”
In a speech, Eliot argued West Point was “all that an educational institution should not be” and pointed to the “inefficiency and failure” of its graduates during the war. Ruckman issued “a communication” challenging Eliot’s remarks, observing that, if they were true, the Academy ought certainly to be abolished.
The Harvard dignitary responded to Ruckman’s “communication,” in the Times, but attempted to minimize the gravity of his own comments by labeling them as “extemporaneous” remarks which were not based on “articles, reports or other evidence” but were, instead, based on his “reading” on the “general subject.” Eliot then complained that West Point accepted students who were “ill prepared material” and forced them into a “completely proscribed curriculum.” He also found fault with the fact that many of the teachers at West Point were recent graduates. With some irony, Eliot himself had graduated from Harvard in 1853 and was hired by Harvard to teach mathematics and chemistry in 1854.
In a passage that must have boiled General Ruckman’s blood, Eliot wrote:
I think [that] the regular army out to be abolished as soon as the United States becomes a member of the League of Nations. Indeed, I think no nation should be allowed to maintain an army of the kind called regular, that is, an army all of whose officers are men who have embraced for life the profession of soldier.
The Times did not report on a further response by Ruckman, but a letter by Lieutenant Colonel George Sydney Binckley was published two days later. It noted Dr. Eliot was “strangely inconsistent” in arguing for the necessity of qualified instructors at West Point and, at the same time, advocating the abolition of the regular army.
An article which appeared in The San Antonio Light three years earlier probably shed some light on how Ruckman felt about West Point and its critics. He was quoted there as saying:
The West Point Military Academy is often criticized and graduates thereof are accused of snobbery and undemocratic ideas, although the boys who graduate therefrom on arriving at the academy are probably the most democratic aggregation of young men ever collected for any purpose … Military committees from many foreign lands have investigated the institution and have gone away only to admire and to imitate, recognizing much better than our own people its values and influence upon the nation … Whatever may be the different elements of which the army may be composed and the numerous fine qualities that it may posses, they all emanate from “the Spirit of Old West Point.” The military academy seeks to produce soldiers and accomplishes its mission, but in addition thereto it has kept the military spirit alive in our country. One understanding this spirit understands the mainspring of success that follows our regular army when called to duty. These considerations to the civilian not knowing and feeling the inspiration of the West Point spirit, are snobbery and military caste …
In March, April and May of 1920, the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce in the sixty-sixth Congress considered the question of whether the President should be allowed to take over and control the Cape Cod Canal (H.J. Res. 311). General Clarence R. Edwards (a personal friend and classmate of Ruckman’s at West Point) testified that he had given the topic of defense of the New England Coast great consideration with the help of General Ruckman and had submitted a confidential report on the matter to the War Department.
Woodrow Wilson landed a “bombshell” in the military establishment in December with a general order of officers eligible for duty in the new General Staff Corp. The Times noted the “elite list” – created by a Board headed by General John J. Pershing - had caused a “great deal of dissatisfaction and much disappointment” because “many distinguished soldiers were not chosen.” When the Times began listing several dozen names of those overlooked, Ruckman’s name was mentioned fifth.
In January of 1921, Ruckman spoke at the thirtieth annual dinner of the Massachusetts Society, Sons of the American Revolution. The acting commander of the First army corps area told the Boston audience that the government should consider requiring immigrants to serve a term in the United States Army as a means to assist in the “Americanization” process.
Ruckman made the nation’s headlines once again in March of 1921, by refusing to permit troops under his command to march in a St. Patrick’s Day in Boston. The Times reported South Boston was “sizzling” with “mass meetings” over the decision, but Secretary of War John W. Weeks agreed with Ruckman and announced the War Department would not “interfere” with his judgment. Ruckman was “bitterly attacked” at the mass meetings and Weeks received numerous telegrams of protest. One day later, Warren Harding’s personal secretary reported the President would not interfere with Ruckman’s decision.
In March, the Times also reported Ruckman, as Commander of the First Coast Artillery District, was calling for “immediate steps” to strengthen the fortification of the New England Coast. The General called for “fixed guns of the largest caliber” to be supplemented by “mobile artillery of the railroad and tractor type” and the filling in of shores so as to create a “continuous line of defense.” Ruckman suggested this “arrangement” would nullify the possibility of an “effective blockade” ever being taken against fleet.
The following month, Ruckman was said to have “startled” an audience in Boston, Massachusetts, by suggesting city officials in Texas were both protectors and participants in the profits of commercialized vice and crime. Ruckman noted that when he requested that local officials there take steps to remove women of questionable character from the dance halls within his military area, they appeared to do so while replacing such women with others of similar character but unknown in the local area. He also explained that he sought the help of local religious leaders and brought about vice and liquor regulations in Texas only after abandoning hope of real assistance from civil leaders.
General Ruckman suffered two strokes on the Sunday evening, June 6, 1921. The second occurred around midnight and took his life. He was only sixty-three years old and had left no will. It was reported that he had suffered from “high blood pressure” for “some time,” his eighty-eight-year old mother was quite shocked to hear the news of her son’s death. At the time, she and her son, William, and daughter, Elizabeth, were living at 710 Vine Street in Champaign, Illinois.
Obituaries appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and the Boston Daily Glove on June 7th and 8th, 1921. The Times reported Ruckman had died at 1479 Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, whereas the Boston Daily Globe reported the death occurred at 26 Brown Street.
A provisional regiment of the coastal defenses of Boston escorted Ruckman’s body to a train station. It was then transported to New York and buried with military honors at West Point, where graves sites were first created by the Hudson River for soldiers who lost their lives in the Revolutionary War. Among the six thousand graves (including those of George Custer, George Sykes, John Buford, Sylvanus Thayer, Daniel Butterfield, and Winfield Scott), Ruckman was placed near the resting place of Colonel John Hamilton and Charlotte Sophia Hamilton, the parents of his wife, May. Pallbearers included two Major Generals, a retired Brigadier General and five Colonels.
The U.S. Military Academy Band and a Detachment of Field Music furnished music at the ceremony and a Detachment of Field Artillery fired eleven minute guns as the cortege left the Chapel. A salute of eleven guns also followed three volleys of musketry over the grave. Flags were also displayed at half staff throughout the service.
After the impressive funeral at West Point, the grieving widow, May Hamilton Ruckman, was reported to have spent several weeks in mourning at her brother’s home in Long Island. The newspapers also reported that, afterward, she planned to return to Brookline to “close the home” there. Mrs. Ruckman died at Walter Reed Hospital in April of 1925 and was buried to the right of her husband. The Army Navy Journal noted her life featured “varied and interesting experiences” in connection with the Army, from her father’s service in the Indian Wars to her husband’s service in the World War. She had been an active member of the Army Navy Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
A little over a year after the death of John Wilson Ruckman, his mother, the widow Mary O’Brien Ruckman, would pass away in her home at 710 South Vine Street, in Urbana, Illinois.
A death certificate would state that the General’s mother had died of “exhaustion” at the age of eighty-nine years and nine months. The Champaign News Gazette observed that Mary O’Brien Ruckman had recently suffered a fractured hip, but also reported that the widow had “never recovered” from the “shock caused by the death of her son,” John Wilson.
In 1977, a five hundred and twenty-eight paged publication displayed important World War I photographs from the Mid-Week Pictorial of the New York Times. Page twenty-three of The War of the Nations, bore the title “Officers Who Were Conspicuous Figures in the War,” and featured a photograph of John Wilson Ruckman. But the tributes to the native of Sidney, Illinois, stretched well beyond the pages of such books.
Upon his death, Ruckman was restored to the rank of Major General and, on June 21, the Congress of the United States awarded him a Distinguished Service Medal posthumously with the following citation:
Brigadier General John W. Ruckman, United States Army deceased. For exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous services as Department Commander, Southern Department, between August 30, 1917, and May 9, 1918, and Department Commander, Northeastern Department, between May 23, 1918, and July 20, 1918. He handled many difficult problems arising in these departments with rare judgment, tact and great skill.
Major General David C. Shanks also issued a statement that praised Ruckman’s forty-three years of service in the military and lamented the fact that the Army had lost “an accomplished and dependable officer” and the nation had lost “a valuable public servant.”
In March of 1922, pursuant to General Order Number 13, the military reservation at Nahant, Massachusetts, was renamed “Fort Ruckman.” The Washington Post reported the change two months later. Captain Gerald W. Butler’s book on the military in Nahant notes General Ruckman was described by the newspapers of the day as “one of the most famous” individuals in the Army associated with the artillery and as “a valiant officer.”
By 1941, Fort Ruckman was among the most “coveted assignments” for soldiers in the Boston area, especially during the summer months. Local papers found its beaches and golf course more conducive to life at a “country club,” or the grandeur of Senator Lodge’s property nearby. Construction was constant at the Fort, following the attack at Pearl Harbor, and Butler notes that, by June of 1942, it was “the most active military post on Boston’s North Shore.” Antiaircraft guns were once a distinct feature of the area but, today (2005), the Fort is partially buried and is said to be the location of much poison ivy. Few of the original buildings remain.
There continues to be both an avenue and an entire neighborhood in the Presidio of San Francisco named in General Ruckman’s honor. Interestingly, at one point, the road intersects with another road named in honor of Emory Upton whom Ruckman admired (see comments on Naval War College thesis, above). According to a 1917 newspaper article, Upton's portrait was featured in the Presidio library, next to that of General Napoleon.
Fort Monroe, Virginia, likewise features a “Ruckman Road” (see photo featured in earlier discussion, above).
El Paso, Texas, has a “Ruckman Street” just to the north of Fort Bliss Military Reservation and to the West of Briggs Army Field.
John Wilson Ruckman is remembered online, at the University of Illinois’ Gold Star Alumni web site. His name also appears on one of the two-paired Roman Doric columns that line the west side of Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. The stadium, which holds seventy thousand people, was completed in 1923. Ruckman’s column can be found just above the Press Entrance at Gate Eighteen. It stands roughly even with the fifty-yard line of the football field.
It appears to the author that insights into the character of John Wilson Ruckman can be derived from two distinct categories of materials - those that are professional and those that are more personal in nature.
Ruckman was described as a “charming, devoted and loyal friend” who also had a very “gifted” sense of humor, although he shared it only with his “intimates.” Indeed, he may have made an impression by the sound his laughter at artillery drill and in “other inappropriate places.” A 1964 editorial by Les Claypool tells the story of a Colonel W.D. Chitty, a West Point graduate who begged a reporter not to print the fact that he had received a speeding ticket for fear that General Ruckman would court-martial him. Ruckman read about the incident and called Chitty in. Claypool wrote that Ruckman asked, "Colonel, how are the roads over your way?" just to put Chitty "on the hook for a while" before taking him off. The editorial observed both men were "100% soldier" and "liked each other."
One local newspaper said Ruckman was a “great lover of home” and “very devoted to his mother.” The General “always made it a point to spend a week or two with her each year” and sometimes visited more frequently. Another such paper noted Ruckman “frequently visited the scenes of his boyhood and spent much time in Urbana.” Local newsmen described him as “just a common man” who “was never too busy to talk to civilians or give a newspaper man a story.”
The 1922 Annual Report of the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy contained a very moving tribute to Ruckman. It was written by Colonel Cornelis deWitt Willcox of Geneva, Switzerland, who finished 4th in his graduating class at West Point (1855), authored The Headhunters of Northern Luzon (1912) and co-founded the Journal of United States Artillery. Willcox's tribute provided interesting insights into the mind and character of the General.
The Annual Report described Ruckman as a “remarkably gifted” man who also had extraordinary “capacity for unremitting labor.” The “dominating trait” of his character was said to be his “uncompromising integrity of mind and of soul backed by indomitable moral courage.” The tribute further suggested Ruckman “ever strove for the right as he saw it, for the truth as he envisioned it, not merely in his official duties or in his official relations, but in every relations of life.”
Some of these themes had actually been present in the official statement issued by General Shanks, shortly following Ruckman’s death. Shanks’ statement read, in part:
Of his many admirable traits probably his most prominent was the fearless way in which he discharged every responsibility without regard to influence other than the dictates of his own conscience, his strong and unerring application of the right and the interests of the Government he served.
General Shanks thought Ruckman’s “well known and recognized personal attainments” and “high personal character” had brought to him those “honors and distinctions” which constitute the rewards “for which soldiers strive.” The Annual Report of West Point would later add that Ruckman was not elevated to the position of General because of “highly placed friends” or personal “influence.” Throughout his career, he had “sought favors of no one.”
Finally, the West Point tribute noted Ruckman had “no taste” for “small pleasures and amusements of life,” but constantly devoted his energies to “realities as he saw them.”
Ruckman was described as a “charming, devoted and loyal friend” who also had a very “gifted” sense of humor, although he shared it only with his “intimates.” It is certain, however, that there were some who never forgot the sound of Ruckman’s laughter at artillery drill and other inappropriate places! A 1964 editorial by Les Claypool tells the story of a Colonel W.D. Chitty, a West Point graduate who begged a reporter not to print the fact that he had received a speeding ticket for fear that General Ruckman would court-martial him. Ruckman read about the incident and called Chitty in. Claypool wrote that Ruckman asked, "Colonel, how are the roads over your way?" just to put Chitty "on the hook for a while" before taking him off. The editorial observed both men were "100% soldier" and "liked each other."
A full page story on General Ruckman that appeared in The San Antonio Light in 1917 had these additional insights, gathered from those who had known him “intimately” throughout his military career: Ruckman was said to be “individualistic” and temperamentally democratic. He was a “lover of fair play” who never found it necessary to “use formal and rigid methods of discipline.” Instead, Ruckman found he could achieve the best results by dealing with others personally, privately, “man to man.” He left others with the sense of his “determination,” a feature that others detected even from his poise. On the other hand, he manifested a “gentler quality.” One intimate friend described his character as a clear combination of “justice and tolerance.”
(As of June 14, 2004, General John Wilson Ruckman’s autograph was worth at least $85 among collectors).